Review: Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is incredible. The cast, the scope and ambition, the cinematography, the special effects and costume design and sets, the sound design, the score, the faithfulness to the book with a few small tweaks to update it and make it feel fresh…all elements excelled.

The visual aesthetics and moody musical themes were special highlights to me, really driving home the differences in the different factions and worlds. I felt the baroque, ostentatious, pseudo-fascist styles of the great houses pulled more than a little (in a good way) from other big-budget sci-fi films of the past twenty years like The Chronicles of Riddick, the Lynchian Dune, The Fifth Element, the Star Wars prequels’ Coruscant scenes, and maybe even Jupiter Ascending. All that said, it has its own unique visual flare; for instance, the arriving and departing spaceships had a surreal alienness to them, seemingly unknowable, like something out of a first contact film like Arrival rather than a space opera. The rumbling sounds and brooding music highlighted everything pitch perfectly.

And the film is damn-near-perfectly cast, with a lot of incredible star talent. Timothee Chalamet is a striking Paul Atreides, coming across as angsty and thoughtful and sensitive and a little disconnected from the human condition already. His best pouty moments of youthful petulance make me yearn for some way to see him play the role of Anakin Skywalker someday–he’d knock it out of the park. Rebecca Ferguson brings a lot more emotion and sympathy to Jessica than any other adaptation, while remaining capable and confident; her nature as a Bene Gesserit yet also a loving and devoted mother and wife is wrung for every ounce of tortured conflict here. Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin essentially define the roles of Duke Leto Atreides, Duncan Idaho, and Gurney Halleck, respectively, for me now. Even lesser roles that could have been forgotten, like Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir or Chang Chen as Dr. Yueh, provided more humanity than I would have expected. On the other end of the spectrum, Dave Bautista portrays Rabban as an almost evil mirror version of his Marvel performances as Drax (to great effect, given the brutish stupidity of the character), Stellan Skarsgard is unrecognizable and terrifying as Baron Harkonnen, and Charlotte Rampling is sinisterly conniving and mysterious as the Reverend Mother. It’s such a large cast, of course, and I could continue to go on and on, but that’s enough. We don’t see enough of the Fremen yet for me to say much about those performances–so far Zendaya seems great as Chani, while Javier Bardem seems a little off and more than a little goofy as Stilgar, but time will tell with the sequel.

This is the best big-budget sci-fi film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the best Dune adaptation I think anyone could hope for. It’s good, and it should definitely be seen in theaters. (I watched it in 2D IMAX at my favored cinema, the Indiana State Museum.) I recognize, though, that it may not be for everyone.

I am not a huge Dune fan. I’ve only read the first book–though I believe I’ve read it at least a couple times–and grew up with the David Lynch movie and watched the Sci Fi Channel miniseries in high school or college. I’m not disinterested, but I’ve never read further in the series. I have great fondness for the narrow exposure to this space opera that I do have. So I’m not perhaps a Dune faithful and could not nitpick every small detail, but I followed along expecting plot points, I was pleasantly surprised by recasting Liet-Kynes as a woman (whereas I recalled the male character in the book and its previous adaptations), and I even predicted where the first half of a two-part film adaptation would have to end. I think a bigger fan will love this movie too and will probably get even more out of it. I wonder if someone not so fond of or familiar with the source material might find the whole affair a bit ponderous, self-absorbed, and confusing, though. Then again, maybe they’ll get it, too.

If you like sci-fi, space operas, big-idea films, epic fantasy, or Dune itself, you should treat yourself–if you haven’t already–and go watch this soon.

Review: Jupiter Ascending

I watched Jupiter Ascending with my wife on Friday for the first time. It’s a hot mess of a movie, and I kind of love it, but I don’t think I can defend it as anything more than popcorn pulp.

Look, if you hate it, I get it. Its first hour is a confusing mess of rapidly materializing and dissipating plot points. Its lore is compressed into incomplete statements by various characters spewed throughout the movie, and that complicated lore feels like there was a lot more drafted than what was in the movie yet simultaneously somehow does not suggest a completely formed galaxy beyond the scope of the movie in the way of, say, Star Wars. In its last half, it virtually repeats the same sequence over again for two antagonists in a row (though the pay-off in that repetition is in seeing how the protagonist has matured and changes her behavior). It’s at least half an hour too long, yet it could have been longer and explored elements of its new mythos in greater detail if it had told a tighter story. And while being such a ridiculously sprawling, confusing, complex narrative, it fundamentally boils down to a synopsis wherein Mila Kunis, who turns out to be reincarnated royalty, is repeatedly kidnapped by wealthy space elites and repeatedly rescued by part-dog, part-angel, part-undressed Channing Tatum. I am totally here for all of it, though.

This movie came out in 2015, so I’m going to discuss it freely, and I guess if you were still somehow on the fence about seeing it you should be warned that spoilers will follow. Because I want to discuss the hell out of this movie, even if my thoughts are still maybe a bit half-baked.

First, I want to praise the Wachowskis (who both wrote and directed this film) for really just going for it visually and thematically. They took Matrix-style reality mind-fucks, and ufology cultural memes from the last half-century, and big beautiful cheesy space opera motifs that seem to be having a resurgence in the current zeitgeist, and they bundled it all together. Grey aliens and crop circles and conspiracies mix with intergalactic royalty and space battles and mech suits and cyborgs and genetically engineered super-warriors, with heady themes of mortality and morality and consumption and capitalism and class all stirred in. It feels a little bit like a roleplaying game group where the GM started out with a lot of cool ideas that were rapidly tossed out over the first few sessions and largely ignored before the actual plot the party pursues coalesced into a more conventional narrative.

And the Wachowskis went heavy with the CGI effects and gorgeous actors to make a really, really, really pretty movie. There were many long chase sequences and fight scenes that added very little to the plot, unnecessarily padding out that runtime, but damn were they gorgeously well-shot; even in night scenes there was vibrant color and a clear sense of movement and direction. Scenes flowed well in a way that so many contemporary action movies get wrong. There was still so much frenetic activity that the most pitched action sequences felt quite chaotic, but I could track what was going on. It was cinematic.

The dialogue was so cornball that it was often delightful (After a pseudo-technical explanation of gravity boots: “I heard ‘gravity’ and ‘surf.'” “Welcome, Your Majesty, to the over-populated, oozing cesspool we humbly call home.” Replying to “I have more in common with a dog than I have with you” by saying, “I love dogs. I’ve always loved dogs.” “I CREATE LIFE. And I destroy it.” “Don’t treat your cousin like a chicken!”) Character development was lacking, though. Tatum and Kunis have a very arbitrary romance subplot. He’s resistant because he hates the “Entitled,” or nobility (a subplot that’s not actually ever developed–we hear that he bit an Entitled’s throat out and was washed out of the Legions for that, but Kunis’s character Jupiter asks once, drops the subject, and just trusts him, and it’s never actually explained). She keeps hitting on him hard–really, really hard. Like, sexual harassment levels, with incredibly cornball dialogue and a lot of really close talking. She’s like when you play Shepard in Mass Effect and you’re trying really hard to make sure you romance a character so you keep choosing the most painfully obvious, awkward, embarrassing come-ons to progress things. When she finally gets Tatum’s dog-man to kiss her, I thought to myself, “Achievement Unlocked: Paramour!”

The supporting characters range from bland to formulaic to campy and weird. Most notably, Eddie Redmayne makes for a scene-chewingly evil Space Noble in the grand tradition of Gary Oldman’s Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg and Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine. But a lot of the lesser background characters were also quite fun, like the weird little android arbiter appointed to navigate Kunis’s character through the process of (re)gaining her noble title; the purely good and totally by-the-rules Aegis Captain Tsing; and the blustery, trumpeting, yet competent part-elephant Aegis navigator Nesh.

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From left to right: the android Gemma Chatterjee (Christina Cole), Phylo Percadium (Ramon Tikaram), Captain Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Nesh (Nicholas Newman). Bless IMDb. I only knew Tsing and Nesh (before looking them up, I thought they were “Sing” and “Desh”). The other two, as far as I recall, never have their names spoken in the film.

Besides how pretty the movie was, the best part was the incredibly petty and convoluted bickering between the Space Nobility! In a nutshell: a matriarch of a royal family died. She left her inheritance to her three heirs. The eldest is sadistic and evil (in the end, we learn that he killed his mother when she grew tired of life and asked him to kill her–or at least so he claims). He also got the bulk of the inheritance, including Earth, which, it turns out, is a seed world waiting to be harvested, which involves turning all of the planet’s human population into a goop that rejuvenates the Space Nobles. He wants to see Jupiter dead because a reincarnated mother means the loss of his estates (I’ll get to that more in a bit). The middle child, a daughter, seems at first interested in seeing her mother restored, but she’s just using Jupiter to get Earth away from her older brother. The youngest child is a spoiled punk kid cruising around in a space yacht and having space orgies while burning through his cash; he also tries to present himself as a friendly face who wants to stop the harvests, convincing Jupiter that if she marries him they can ensure that the Earth is protected even if one or the other is assassinated. He is lying, of course. He just wants more cash, and the Earth is a nice easy cash crop.

Jupiter is repeatedly chased and kidnapped and coerced and cajoled in service to the plotting of these Space Nobles. Tatum’s character starts out as a guy just trying to restore his honor by taking on a contract capture of Jupiter, but he ends up becoming her loyal protector. The nobility is always manipulating. We see some glimpses of a larger, ridiculously inefficient bureaucracy, including a circuitous pathway to establishing inheritance and filing title, as well as a space police force that lacks the authority to stop some pretty obvious criminal activities from occurring. It’s such a broken, corrupt, bizarre, fascinating world that I’m willing to shelve the questions about why a billion-year-old society would still rely on feudalism. I would love to see more of this petty noble feuding over estates and inheritances and assets. I would love to see more of the space cops–the Aegis–and to learn what authority they have and who they answer to. I would love to see what role the military, the Legions, plays in all this beyond some remote but never-seen ideal. And I’d like to see more of the dominant religion!

Also interesting: in this super-advanced, long-lived society, traditional religions appear to have been displaced by a faith in science. Genetics has taken on a sacred meaning, and the way that one’s genes define one’s being (with spliced humans having questionable personhood and apparently being bought and sold like goods) raises some really creepy eugenics questions. A lot of the movie could in fact be seen as a metaphor for the slave trade (especially regarding the harvests of worlds and the splicing of servants and soldiers), but that’s a prompt I’m just going to dump out there for now without further exploration. What I’m getting to right now is that these people have reached a point where genetic structure is seen as sort of equivalent to a soul. And apparently in this universe, an absurd convergence occasionally happens where exact genetic structures are repeated. So Jupiter is actually an exact genetic copy of the dead matriarch. This is apparently a common enough occurrence in this galaxy that the wealthy nobility often have riders in their wills providing that their estates revert to the “deceased” if such a duplicate emerges. It’s really fucking wild and absurd and implausible, I get it. But it was a fun idea, and I could buy into it after accepting that it was just an openly absurd concept. Yet here again is another element that is brought up without fully being explored in the film. There’s not enough time to get into the interesting politics, legal structures, science, and spirituality of this world when we have to have another ten-minute explodey chase sequence, after all.

Jesus, there is a lot going on in this movie, though.

I understand that this has become something of a girl geek cult film, and I get it. There are many elements that could be straight out of a teen’s DeviantArt or Tumblr account. For example, Tatum’s Caine Wise is a washed-out soldier with a heart of gold who is smoking hot and often shirtless, he’s a pseudo-fursona given his canine genetics, and his main quest is getting back his fucking angel wings. It’s all just so crazy. Perhaps you could make the argument that it’s a sort of Twilight for sci-fi fans. Oh well. I’m not going to claim that this is Great Art. I’m not going to lie. But it’s engaging, and fun, and wild, and if it hasn’t spawned a thousand fan fictions yet I’m sure it will eventually. As with any good cult film, I hope this sticks around long after most people have (all-too-appropriately) forgotten about it.

Yes, it’s a bad movie, and I would totally watch it again.